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Americans hate the ‘other side’ in politics. But so do Europeans.

That dislike is becoming worse in the United States faster than elsewhere.

- November 5, 2020

“The country is in a dangerous place,” former vice president Joe Biden noted in a recent speech in Gettysburg, Pa., adding, “Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy.” This was a widely expressed sentiment. Comments about the country’s extreme political polarization have run throughout news coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign. As the votes are being counted in a few remaining states, news stories from across the country reflect the “pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results.”

Ordinary people feel this viscerally. According to recent polling from the Pew Research Center, more than half of Biden voters say the main reason that they will support their candidate is that he is “not Trump,” and many voters say they will be “angry” if the other side wins. Academic research highlights citizens’ negative emotions of dislike, contempt and distrust across party lines, which scholars label “affective polarization.” Those who closely follow politics may assume that the United States is far more affectively polarized than are other Western democracies.

But it’s not true. In our recently published book, we found that in comparison with other Western democracies, U.S. affective polarization is not exceptionally high. However, over the past 25 years, Americans’ dislike of partisan opponents has intensified more strongly than in most comparable postindustrial democracies.

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Here’s how we researched this question

To examine whether Americans feel an unusually high amount of dislike toward opposing parties, we analyzed survey data from 20 Western democracies collected since the mid-1990s.

We developed a statistical measure that could compare these levels of affective polarization across countries, while accounting for differences between the United States’ two-party system and other countries’ multiparty systems. We relied on a survey question asking respondents in 20 countries to rate how much they like or dislike each party in their country. This survey question was asked in the same way in all these countries as part of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems surveys.

The more partisans like their own party, and the more they dislike other parties, the higher is the measured level of affective polarization. To compare across countries, we measure affective polarization as a weighted (by vote-share) average of the difference in feeling toward one’s own party and toward each of the out-parties, meaning that our measure can be interpreted as how respondents feel, on average, toward all of the parties in their country’s electoral system.

American affective polarization is about average

Perhaps surprisingly given U.S. media attention to cross-party resentment and hostility, Americans do not appear any more polarized than citizens of other countries. In fact, U.S. levels of affective polarization are near the average across the 20 other Western democracies included our study, if we average data from surveys across all the years we examined, from 1996 to 2017. In particular, U.S. affective polarization is significantly less intense than what we find in Southern Europe — in Spain, Greece and Portugal — and is similar to what we find in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Denmark and Switzerland.

In the figure below, higher values denote more intense affective polarization. As you can see, the United States scores as only the eighth-most affectively polarized country among these 20 nations. In the United States, partisans rate their party about 4.5 points more warmly than the opposing party, on average, on a “thermometer” scale that ranges from 0 (denoting very cold feelings) to 10 (very warm feelings). In the Netherlands, the least affectively polarized country, this difference shrinks to less than 3 points. In Spain, the most affectively polarized country, respondents rate their preferred party more than 5 points more warmly than opposing parties, on average.

How has this changed over time?

But that’s when we average scores across the two decades of our study. If we break scores down by year, we can see U.S. affective polarization increasing more over time than in the other 19 countries.

Other scholars have already documented the fact that the United States has grown increasingly polarized. Our comparative study finds that since the mid-1990s, Americans’ dislike of partisan opponents has intensified more sharply than in most other Western democracies. In fact, in the 2016 election, Americans’ affective polarization was well above the 20-nation average in our study, almost as strong as what we see in Southern Europe.

That’s not part of a general trend across these countries. Americans are not alone in growing more angry and resentful of the “other” party; that’s also true in several other countries, including Greece and Portugal. But in other countries, like Germany, affective polarization has actually declined over those same years — and in many other countries, it’s stayed relatively stable.

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What does this mean for the United States?

Observers worried about the polarization and health of U.S. democracy have plenty of reason to do so: Since 1996, animosity toward opposing parties increased more sharply in the United States than in most other Western democracies. That rise is not part of a general trend across Western countries.

However, the United States isn’t really an outlier. In comparison with citizens of other Western democracies, Americans don’t report exceptionally intense partisan resentment. That was true even during the tea party and “birther” era of President Barack Obama’s second term, from 2013 to 2017. Of course, partisan hostility may still damage the fabric of American society or undermine U.S. democratic institutions. But our findings do suggest that American political divisions aren’t much stronger than those abroad.

Noam Gidron (@NoamGidron) is an assistant professor in the department of political science and the joint program in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

James Adams is a professor in the department of political science at UC Davis.

Will Horne (@RWillH11) is a graduate student in the department of politics at Princeton University.

Together, the three are authors of “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” Cambridge University Press (2020).